Supreme Court Finds Execution of Mentally Retarded Constitutionally Prohibited

December 4, 2001

Executing mentally retarded individuals is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by both the federal and state constitutions, the Tennessee Supreme Court said Tuesday in a ruling addressing the issue for the first time.

"We conclude that there is compelling evidence that the execution of mentally retarded individuals violates the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society both nationally and in the State of Tennessee," Justice Riley Anderson wrote in the majority opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Frank Drowota and Justice Adolpho A. Birch, Jr. "We also have determined that the execution of any mentally retarded individuals, who by definition have significantly sub-average intelligence functioning and deficits in adaptive behavior, is grossly disproportionate and serves no valid penological purpose."

The decision stems from an appeal by death row inmate Heck Van Tran, who was convicted of three counts of felony murder and sentenced to death for killing three people during a 1987 Memphis restaurant robbery. The court upheld the convictions and the sentence of death following Van Tran’s direct appeal in 1993 and his post-conviction appeal in 1999. Van Tran filed a motion to reopen his post-conviction case, however, asserting that he had new evidence that his IQ is below 70 and that his execution would violate a Tennessee law because he is mentally retarded. Tennessee statutory law prohibits the execution of the mentally retarded, which it defines as significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning as evidenced by a functional intelligence quotient of 70 or below and deficits in adaptive behavior. The statute also says mental

retardation must have been manifested during the defendant’s developmental period or before age 18.

The court unanimously said the statutory law does not apply to defendants sentenced before its effective date of July 1, 1990, because the statute did not contain precise language making it retroactive. "In short, notwithstanding the presence of some ambiguous language in the statute and in the legislative history, there is no evidence of a clear legislative intent to apply the statute retroactively. . . .," Anderson wrote.

However, a majority of the court determined that the issue raised by Van Tran had obvious constitutional implications and held that the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution prohibit executing mentally retarded individuals. Anderson, joined by Drowota and Birch, wrote that although mentally retarded defendants may be validly convicted and sentenced for a criminal offense, their execution is cruel and unusual punishment because it "violates the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society both nationally and in the state of Tennessee, is grossly disproportionate and serves no valid penological purpose."

The court reversed a Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals decision and remanded Van Tran’s case to a Memphis trial court for a hearing to determine whether he has "significantly sub-standard intelligence functioning and deficits in adaptive behavior" that were manifested in the developmental period or before age 18.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice William M. Barker, joined by Justice Janice M. Holder, wrote that the court could not properly address the merits of Van Tran’s constitutional claim because Van Tran was unable to reopen his post-conviction petition under Tennessee’s Post-Conviction Procedure Act. Barker said Van Tran’s lower score on a revised I.Q. test did not show that he was "actually innocent" of the murder for which he was sentenced to death in 1987.

In the dissent, Barker also said the Tennessee Constitution bars execution of a mentally retarded person, but only when the defendant’s mental condition affects his or her cognitive or moral capacities. Therefore, he and Holder believed the execution should proceed because Van Tran never claimed that his alleged mental retardation affected his ability to understand what would happen if he pulled the trigger of a loaded pistol; that it affected his ability to understand it was morally wrong to commit murder; or that it affected his ability to behave in a lawful manner.